What was he doing? Killing injured, surrendering soldiers? These soldiers who had surrendered in hopes of returning to the families and friends waiting for them? Families and friends…
A migraine was beginning to build at Werner’s temple, and his vision began to blur. He squeezed his eyes shut to dispel the nausea that came with the sensations. When he opened his eyes again, he felt his blood run cold. Standing just behind the Aquarian soldiers was a boy. A boy with deep green eyes and long dark hair that was bleached blonde at the tips and tied into a loose bun. His skin was pale but in certain areas, it looked like it’d been beaten by the sun. But yet even still his eyes were harsh and cold.
Werner did not know this boy but yet he knew this boy. A name was on his tongue.
But what was that in the boy’s eyes…?
Judgement…? Disgust, pain, empathy.
“How can you even do this to people?” The boy whispered.
The boy’s eyes scrunched, and he covered his mouth as he hugged his stomach with his free hand. And then it came. The flashes of memory. The bodies that had been strewn across the floor on his way to this floor. The bodies that he had aimed at. The soldiers who had crawled away from his target. The people he had killed.
Anton. Lukas. The names began to return to him as did their faces. The Aquarians and those who he’d slain on the southern border.
Something crawled at the pit of Werner’s stomach and rose to his throat. Shivers followed as did a piercing pain at the back of his neck. It came so forcefully that he fell on all fours—an action that sent his conductor skidding away. He was only vaguely aware of this because bile came crawling up his throat and out his mouth.
All of those bodies—
—but he had to kill them. There was no other way. Orders were orders. Could that boy not understand this—
Wiping the bile from his mouth, Werner lifted his head to look at the boy. But the boy was gone. In the boy’s place was the freckled Aquarian. The Aquarian stood there pointing his very own conductor at him. It seemed as if he was an externalist then. What misfortune.
He locked eyes with the Aquarian. The desperation in those eyes was familiar.
The Aquarian’s finger moved towards the trigger. And then there was a bright burst of sky blue light. Werner winced in the brightness, and when he opened his eyes the freckled Aquarian was on the floor and missing half of his face. The man he was protecting laid beside the pool of red unconscious.
Werner turned his head. Just a couple steps below him stood a shaking Otto, the tip of his conductor still billowing with smoke.
Lowering his weapon with trembling hands, Otto asked, “Are you okay, sir?”
Werner turned away from him and pried his conductor from the fallen Aquarian’s hands. His own hands were trembling. Could Otto see? Swallowing the bile in his mouth, Werner rose to a stand and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“I’m fine, Otto. Thank you.”
Otto straightened and nodded. “Of course, sir.” His gaze then shifted to the bodies on the floor, and his face turned green.
Werner followed his gaze, and his stomach immediately began to churn. He looked away from the mess and at Otto. Otto who looked palid, exhausted, sick. Again, Werner’s stomach churned. That green-eyed boy’s gaze was burned into his mind as was the gaze of the freckled Aquarian.
“Tell the other men to take the Aquarians in if they surrender,” Werner found himself saying. He noticed Otto’s brows raise in surprise but he continued nonetheless. “We should abide by the laws that were in place during the War.” He stared at Otto for a moment, and the boy wavered under his gaze. “We will take camp here for the night.”
An hour or so later and Werner was standing in a small cabin furnished with two wooden desks pressed along the walls and a handful of chairs. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and paired with the moonlight streaming in from the window it provided the cabin with all-reaching light.
At one of the desks sat Klaus Kleine. On the desk sat a large book that was opened to a page that displayed a military radio in detail. It’s parts, wires, knobs, nuts, and bolts. Klaus’s gaze was locked onto these details and sweat was beading his brow. His conductor-gloved hands were extended outwards and the base of it was glowing with lilac light. Very faintly, a glowing wire-like object began to take shape just below his extended hands.
The door to the cabin creaked open.
Gilbert. He stepped inside, gave a nod to Klaus, before joining Werner’s side. He raised a brow at him before asking, “So what’s going on?”
“I’m having Private Klaus conjure a radio so that I can update Major Ersatz on our current whereabouts.”
Gilbert rubbed his neck. “Well, yeah, I can see that, Werner, but I was talking about how you said earlier we’d keep on for the rest of the day but now you’re saying that we should rest here. It’s not like you to change your mind, so what’s up?”
“The men need rest,” Werner said, folding his hands behind his back. “We don’t know how many more Aquarian pockets we’ll find along the way. Exhaustion will lower their performance.”
“Huh.” Gilbert raised a brow. “What about the Aquarians then? Usually, you’re all ‘orders are orders’ but you switched things up today.” He shrugged. “I’m not complaining or anything. Not volunteering to be any more of a murderer. But is there something going on?”
Werner glanced at Klaus. He seemed to be too focused on conjuring the radio parts to be listening in on their conversation.
“I’m just following the precedent set before. It…. didn’t occur to me before.”
“Right…” Gilbert studied him for a long while before he stretched and yawned. “Well, if anything else happens to occur to you, I’m here.”
Werner turned to Gilbert but then hesitated. Before he could say anything, Klause shot up from his seat and stretched with a huff. Rubbing his eyes from behind his round glasses, he turned around, stiffened, and saluted.
“It’s all done, sir. Everything should be in working order.” Klause gestured to the desk which was now topped with a military radio that was identical to the one in the book. Microphone, headset, and all.
“Good work, Private Kleine.” Werner nodded at him. “I will need two more radios.” He paused as Klaus grimaced for a fraction of a second, and his stomach churned with an odd emotion that felt as if it was not quite his own. Guilt. “If you are feeling up to it.”
Gilbert and Klaus both seemed surprised by this statement and Werner was too, but Klaus nodded deeply before moving over to another desk and bringing his book with him. Gilbert headed towards the door.
Werner watched them go, and then—
There was a static crackle from the recently conjured radio in the corner of the room. A voice cracked out: “Hello?”
Kleine did not move from where he was working on conjuring another radio, and Gilbert did not turn back from the doorway.
“Nico…?” the voice cracked again.
Still, no one moved from their positions.
“Hello? Are you there?”
Werner slowly paced over to one of the large machines and picked up the headphones producing the sound. He placed them to his ear and leaned down towards the microphone. “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz of the 789th Squadron speaking. What is your military code?”
Static prickled his ears. White noise.
But then: “What’s this code you’re talkin’ about?”
Now that the headphones were pressed up to his ear, Werner could hear the strange lilt to the voice on the other end of the line. The accent they spoke with was odd.
“Operator?” the voice pressed.
Werner’s heart skipped a beat and his head began to spin.
He opened his mouth to respond, but then—
“Oh, you’re like her, aren’t you? You… you’re real, aren’t you?”
And the static that crackled out from the headphones was suddenly overcome by a much louder sound. A piercing whine. It screamed through his ears and pierced his temple like a bullet. The lights in the room intensified bleaching everything around him in a painful white. While Werner managed to remain rigid and standing, he couldn’t help but to squeeze his eyes shut. He had suffered from concussions several times before and what he felt now was several times worse than the feeling that came with them.
“You—who are you?”
Werner opened his eyes.
The radio room was gone.
He was standing in a pale hallway that was dotted with polished wooden doors. Papers littered the floor. And right in front of him stood a young woman — although, perhaps it was a young man — who leaned on the rim of a gray telephone phone station that looked in need of repair. There was a singular headphone pressed to her ear.
The woman’s eyes were narrowed as if hurt and her lips were pulled downward, but the expression only lasted a fraction of a second. Soon she was quirking a brow and offering a lopsided grin: “Well, I gotta say that these hallucinatory meetings keep gettin’ weirder and weirder.”
The voice that came out from the young woman standing before him simultaneously crackled out of the headphones that he still had pressed to his ear.
Werner, lost for words and certain he’d lost his mind as well, stood frozen in place.
“By the look of your face,” the young woman drew, pulling off the fedora on her head and resting it on top of the phonebox, “this must be the first time you’re experiencing this. That is, if you’re real.” She spread her free arm wide. “Welcome to the party.”
Werner opened his mouth wordlessly again.
“The name’s Cadence.” The woman mocked a deep bow. “But maybe you knew that already.” Straightening herself, she offered her hand. “And you look like… a Werner…”
“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, Werner managed to find his voice. It only came out as a whisper.
“Well, not sure ‘bout that.” The woman replied after a moment of staring. “Either I’m goin’ insane, or we’re both goin’ insane, or we’re experiencin’ somethin’ outta this world.” After another moment of staring she continued: “Honestly if there’s a meaning to all this, I can’t really think one up. This is how it’s going to be now—I think—and we just gotta make use with what we have.”
Werner remained silent. He glanced down at the microphone he was holding in his hands. Despite him being in what appeared to be a completely different location than the communications cabin, he was still able to see and to feel the device in his hands. A hallucination, then. A result from his injury several days earlier. That would answer the question as to why Gilbert and Klaus didn’t acknowledge the radio transmission.
“Ey, you’re a soldier, aren’t you?” The young woman Cadence pressed. “Capricornian by the looks of it. Let’s just say you’re real. Ya wouldn’t happen to be involved in that border conflict, would ya?”
Werner glanced back up at the woman.
“Even though you’re a Capri, I don’t have anything against you and what you’re up to.” Cadence continued. “None of my business.”
And then Werner closed his eyes. He counted to fifty; and as the numbers in his head became louder, the ringing in his ears became quieter. The woman’s voice became nonexistent. Faintly, he could hear Klaus tinkering in the background of the radio station.
“’Ey, what the hell!?”
Werner opened his eyes.
Cadence was right in front of him now. She was so close that he could see even the smallest freckles on her cheeks. Her caramel brown eyes were wide and livid.
“Is that how they teach manners in your country?!” She snapped.
Werner stumbled backwards in surprise. The headphones and microphone clattered noisily onto the floor beside him.
“I ain’t one to know much about manners, but even I know that ignoring someone is one of the worst things you can do!”
“I—” Werner swallowed, overcome by confusion and alarm. The only words he could think of were: “I apologize.”
Cadence studied him before pulling back with crossed arms and a nod. “Well, I get it. You’re confused. I was pretty confused too so I can’t really judge you too harshly. Sir, I still am confused.” She dropped her arms and then moved to rub the back of her neck. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling. “Here’s the low down.”
Werner followed her gaze up, and for some reason, he thought of the sky and the moon. He hadn’t seen the clear sky for a while now. The moon was a blessing tonight.
“You and me? If we’re both not insane, then we’re somehow communicatin’ across borders.” Cadence continued. “Don’t know how. Don’t know why.” She whistled. “But if we’re not hallucinating, then it looks like we’re connected somehow. At this point, with everythin’ goin on, I’ve pretty much accepted it. Problems of the heart and mind, ‘ey?”
Her words were incomprehensible.
“I am hallucinating.”
The young woman cackled at his words. “Well, then I am too. But if I’m hallucinatin’ then that means you’re not real. Bah, just thinkin’ about it makes my head hurt.” She really did seem amused. Her eyes sparkled with the emotion. “There are others part of this whole maybe-hallucination-maybe-real thing, so I recommend you be more friendly with ‘em. Not everyone is as easygoin’ as I am, sir.”
“I was injured during a battle. I suffered a head injury. I did not allow myself sufficient time to recover.”
Cadence cackled again. Louder this time. An unrefined laugh. “You’re gonna be a hard one, ain’t ya? Well, that’s how life is.” Suddenly, abruptly, she extended her hand out to him “So, how about you and I become acquainted then? From one hallucination to another.”
He stared at her hand without comprehending it. Slowly, carefully, he reached out.
And just like that, the hallway scenery shattered. The papers, the phone, the doorways fell down around him in shards. The woman reflected his expression of surprise before she too fell away into pieces.
He was standing back in the radio station with the microphone and headphones still resting on the ground beside his feet. The hum of the radio whirled in the background. In the background where Kleine sat staring at him. At him with his hand still extended in the direction where Cadence once stood. At Gilbert Kraus who stood beside him gripping his raised arm tightly.
“Werner!” Gilbert repeated, eyes wide, grip tightening.
Their stares pricked his skin. The palm of his hands began to itch terribly.
Werner dropped his arm and tried to recollect himself. A difficult task due to the buzzing alarm of panic in his head and the cold sweat trickling down his back. He swallowed and then tried in an even voice: “Is there something else you’d else you would like to tell me, Kraus?”
Like nothing occurred.
Gilbert stared at him and opened his mouth. But then he followed Werner’s gaze to Kleine, and his eyes narrowed. He shook his head and released his grip. Disappointment probably.
“Back to work, Private,” Werner said clearing his throat.
Like nothing occurred.